In some very small towns, there are just two or three churches, and the pastors of those churches will sometimes rotate as the speakers at the high school baccalaureate service. So I've had the privilege several times during my different tenures as pastor in those towns.
My goal was less to preach a straightforward Sunday-morning sermon and more to offer a couple of thoughts about what's next in life for the new graduates. Over time, those ambitions got a little less grandiose, until eventually I had just one piece of advice for them: Now that you're leaving high school, I encourage you to leave high school.
By which I meant that they shouldn't live in this moment forever -- I remember when people would tell me during my own commencement season that these years would be the "best time of my life." While smiling and saying "Thanks," which is what polite young people do when old people they don't know say things to them, I would be thinking, "Lord, I hope not."
If I'm 17 when my life peaks, I'm staring at fifty-plus years of a downhill slide. To suggest that high school graduation is the best time of my life is to suggest I'd never do anything better than that, even if what those folks meant was that I should take advantage of every opportunity available to me at that wide-open time in my life. Hey, maybe when I'm near the end I'll look back and say, "Wow, that was a really great time," or maybe it will be eclipsed by other times even better.
I'm sure the temptation for Jesus' disciples was to look back at the years with him as those "best years" of their lives, and I imagine that years in Jesus' presence would be a high point no matter what kind of life you had. And maybe they felt tempted to just stay in those memories, like they were staying on that mountaintop, but they had work to do.
Jesus' own words to them are that they will be his witnesses to Judea, Samara and the ends of the earth. Only one of those exists on that mountaintop -- Judea -- and only a very small piece of it is actually there. So they have got places to go, people to see, things to do, and thus the angels encourage them to not live inside their past experiences of being with Jesus. Those experiences matter, but they will only matter when they are shared or when they form and shape the people who will be sharing.
School gives us an education, partly for its own sake but also partly for the sake of others. Our employers are happy we can read and write. Our friends are happy we stay up on current events so they don't have to recycle Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan jokes. If we help people, those we help are happy we studied writers and thinkers who moved us to be helping kinds of folks. Commencement, whether it happens at high school or college or graduate school, is literally the start of that time when we now use what we have learned.
For the disciples on the mountain, Jesus' ascension to heaven was their commencement. They awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit to equip and guide them in the work Jesus gave them, and then they moved out to bring that same spirit to others.
Of course, it's not exactly the same. We had to learn algebra even though we may still be wondering what good it did us, but I believe we find that every part of our encounter with Christ -- whether in the flesh as it was for the disciples or by the work of the Holy Spirit as it is for us today -- can bring blessing to our lives and the world around us.